Animal Communication Intensive

Rebecca Curtis


I was standing in front of a closet with sliding mirrored doors. It was dark except for a dim light being emitted from an unknown source. I didn’t recognize the hotel room even though a pile of my clothing was leaking out of the closet where the closet door was cracked open on one side. Long drapes concealed what I somehow knew were glass doors leading out to a balcony.

            A thin woman I didn’t know was talking to me. Her reflection was hazy in the glass behind her. It mimicked the gestures she was making with her arms. “I have to meet someone. I’ll be back in a little while.” 

            Behind us were two beds, so I assumed we were together. But I didn’t try to stop her even though the air was thick with an approaching storm. I knew it was dangerous. 

            My stomach began to churn after she had left. 

            There was a knock at the door. It was already open but I said “come in” anyway.

            A woman in a blue uniform entered. “We’ve been doing inventory. We were cleaning out our closets, and we found something you left with us twenty years ago.” 

            A man in a matching uniform appeared behind her. A leash dangled behind him. On the opposite end, entered my childhood dog, Gracie. Her dog tag clanked against the thick metal loop on her collar. The loop had once been used to latch her to a chain that connected to the line on our lawn where she spent her days. A familiar musk clung to her fluffy brown and white fur. A Sheltie, her coat mimicked a brown suit with a white button-down peeking out above its jacket. She looked like a big cotton ball. Her fluffiness disguised thick mats of tangled fur.

            She didn’t look at me, and I didn’t run and embrace her. She trotted over to the closet and sat down. Then our eyes connected, but her expression was flat.

I. Intentions

The psychic smiled at me, and began by asking, “First, I want to ask everyone what their intention is in coming here today?” She was blonde and wore a flowery vintage-style dress. She motioned towards the woman to her left. 

            “I’m also a medium,” said the middle-aged woman, one of the twelve including myself who were sitting in a circle in front of the psychic. “I’m also an animal Reiki practitioner, so I’m here to improve my understanding of my clients.”

            I didn’t know what a Reiki practitioner was.

            A dresser by the door was cluttered with animal statues, colorful rocks, candles, and bowls of dark feathers. Otherwise, the room was fairly empty except for a round table next to the psychic that was covered in tall bottles of oil, a coyote statue, a wooden crow turned to one side, and an aged coyote skull. In front of the table was a fake plant.

            The woman next to the middle-aged woman was also an animal Reiki practitioner, and a dog groomer, seeking to improve her rapport with her furry clients. Another woman had a cat with behavioral issues. Next to her, a younger husky woman blotted her cheeks as she spoke about the goats she lost in a recent barn fire.

            Remnants of something scorched and spicy lingered in the air, probably incense. I looked up and stared into the wooden crow’s one visible eye, which was pointed in my direction.

            “I guess I want to know why this happened,” the husky woman said. “And I want to know if the babies who died are okay.” The goats had belonged to a friend of hers but she’d helped bottle-feed them. She hadn’t been present during the fire, but now she kept seeing images of the goats trapped inside the burning barn. 

            “…I just don’t understand why they were taken from us like that. What was the purpose of them being born if they were just going to suffer and die so young? And I wonder if there was anything we could have done differently to change things?”

            I stared at a small rug in front of the psychic. Its Native American-style pattern was comprised of tiny maroon staircase-shaped lines stacked one on top of another, each clump separated from the next by a strip of white space. 

            “Guilt and grief are major themes I see with people who visit my classes…” the psychic said.

            I stopped listening. I didn’t need a psychic to tell me what I had or hadn’t done to Gracie. I only came because my friend, who was sitting next to me, had asked me to. I stared out the wall of windows to my right. The psychic had said the old mill building that the housed the studio we were in sat in front of the Merrimack River, but I couldn’t see anything from my chair. 

            I was afraid the others could read my body language or feel vibes coming off of me somehow. So when it was my turn, I said, “I come from two old farming families from the area” to link myself with the others somehow. It garnered a lot of Ohh!(s) but it probably wouldn’t have if I had mentioned anything about our beef cattle. “And I’m here because of my friend,” I gestured to my left at Tanya. “She told me about this class. And also because I was curious, I guess you could say.” 

            “You should invite your farmer ancestors in as spirit guides to help you out today,” the psychic said. 

            I nodded then changed the subject. “I also have a dog with behavioral problems.” I smiled at the woman with the misbehaving cat. “Her name is Dixie, and she’s an American Dingo.” 

            There was a chorus of Whoa!(s) and Awww!(s).

            “…She used to be aggressive because she is feral. She was born in the wild. But now that she is old, she’s calmed down a bit. She just has a scratching problem that’s really annoying, but there isn’t anything that can be done about it. We bathe her every other day and treat her with Benadryl, but she has an incurable genetic skin disorder.” I didn’t know why I was talking about Dixie because I had shown her nothing but love and when she passed on, which could be anytime, nothing would be left unsaid between us. I had endured sleepless nights from her scratching, constantly was washing her bedding because her open sores oozed puss that smelled like rotting flesh, and always cleaned up the accidents she had in the house. When I realized I had been rambling on about how powerful and beautiful she was when she was young, I stopped because I didn’t know if the psychic was planning on reading our animals’ minds.

            “That is good that you stopped,” the psychic said. “Don’t say too much.” She looked around at everyone.

            Tanya talked about how many animals she had: six house bunnies, a room packed with birds that flew around un-caged, nests perfectly kept, a flock of chickens, and three alpacas. Her alpacas lived in a paddock that surrounded her small home. She was like Snow White. She had dark hair and a soft, careful way of approaching everything in her life, especially her animals.

            Each time she mentioned a new animal, the women made noises like some people do for cute babies. 

            “About a hundred rescue animals come through my home in the past five years,” she said. 

            The women’s expressions reminded me of the way people look when a baby does something too cute. They began talking amongst themselves about how many animals they had rescued recently. I remained quiet.

            Like many of the other women, my friend had a deceased animal, a rooster she wanted to communicate with because she felt responsible for his death. She had cared for the rooster, who had lived inside, better than some people do their children. 

            One blonde woman, who had seven dogs and ran a dog rescue out of her home, talked about factory farming for a half an hour. “I don’t know what to do,” she said to the psychic. “I just feel like I can’t do enough. One of her friends sitting beside her had to retrieve some tissues. “I break down several times a day thinking about what those poor cows are going through.” She talked about the dairy farm she lived on as a child, how she used to climb up the fence that surrounded the pasture.  “That was the first time I realized I could talk to cows.”

            The coyote statue’s nose was pointed in my direction. I felt tired. I didn’t like this woman.

            “… There is just so much pain the world,” she said, “and I can feel all of it.” 

             “I’m glad you brought this up,” the psychic said. “Someone always brings up the feeling of helplessness. They feel like they should make more of a difference. I always tell those people to ‘bloom where you’re planted.’ You’re doing what you can in your corner of the world and that is all you can do. You aren’t alone—all of the people in this room,” she gestured, “are fighting the good fight with you. Combined, we are all making a difference. If you worry too much about things beyond your control, you won’t be well enough to do the good work that you’re doing right now.”

            The blonde told everyone that she and her husband had separated recently. She was worried her seven dogs weren’t adjusting well to his absence. “The only way I’ve been able to get through all of it…” she turned to the two women beside her “is because I met my fellow Empaths here. I’ve been calling them my soul sisters.” 

            Her fellow Empaths smiled. One of them reached over and placed her hand on the blonde woman’s arm.

            I was relieved when one of the other Empaths began talking about a very special animal she had lost. “I would like to consider getting an animal at some point. But I don’t know if I’m ready,” she said. I assumed she had lost a small dog because her name was Kerry, and a friend of mine named Kerry—who this Kerry happened to look like—had lost her Min-pin, Bambi, to a coyote or a mountain lion when she let Bambi out one night to go to the bathroom. Empath Kerry didn’t say how her special animal had died but did wonder if she could have done more.  

            I had the theory that if she had to wonder, she had done all she could.

            The psychic addressed the subject of guilt again. “I always tell people, animals don’t look at death the same way we do. We feel guilt. Animals don’t even know what guilt is. They don’t experience it. They don’t understand it.”

            Empath Kerry nodded with a half-smile.

            “Not that you did do anything to cause your animal’s death, because I’m positive you didn’t—I’m positive none of you did”—the psychic looked at everyone but I averted my eyes— “but the beauty about animals is that their love is unconditional. Dogs, for example, you can do terrible things to a dog and they’re still going to show up for you.” 

            I felt like I might be sick. 

II. The Cleansing

The psychic passed a cleansing agent called “Florida Water” around the room to expunge any stresses we might have walked in with. It was clear and smelled like lemonade and bug spray. When I poured it into my hand, some overflowed onto the carpet. “Don’t worry,” the psychic said. “It’s basically just scented water. It doesn’t stain. But it works really well for this purpose. Now, everyone, what are some of the ways animals communicate?”

            The Florida Water evaporated quickly but its acidic scent lingered.

            “We’ll be having several visitors today. So you will have plenty of real, live animals to read.” The psychic smiled and everyone began chatting amongst themselves.

            “You?” I said. “You mean us? We’re going to read animals today?”

            “Yes, you,” the psychic said playfully. “Don’t worry, I’ll be right here to guide you. It’s going to be a piece of cake.” 

            Tanya’s eyes widened. She looked at me, and I knew she was also unaware of this detail. I hadn’t read the description of the class before I signed up, but now I was already committed. 

            “What are some of the ways that animals communicate?” the psychic said.

            Some people said through body language, others said behavior, and some said through sounds. One woman had learned to communicate with animals through something she called “angel conduits” by taking a class in I.E.T. therapy—”Integrated Energy Therapy.” Her face was as bright and expressive as it had been earlier when she spoke of how she pulled over to the side of the road each time she saw what she called a “Horsey.”

            No one else even cracked a smile. So I stared out the empty window while she spoke to prevent myself from laughing. 

            “My dog sighs,” I said after she had finished. 

            Everyone laughed. 

            “I know what you mean by sigh,” the psychic said, “but in what way does your dog sigh, and what does she sigh in response to?”

            I took a deep breath, held it then released it, like a balloon deflating. 

            Everyone laughed again.  

            “She does it when she can’t get at an itch that’s really bothering her. Or when you do something she doesn’t really appreciate, or that doesn’t fit with her needs in that moment.” I didn’t mention that sometimes Dixie whined like she was a violin out of tune. She had been anxious and whining that morning because, even with the pain medication I wrapped in bits of bread for her four times a day, she was still in pain with arthritis and anxious about how itchy she was. I didn’t tell them that I had lost my temper, yelled, and dragged her oversized, plush doggie bed into the kitchen as a punishment before returning it to the living room remorsefully. 

            When the other women began talking about how their dogs also sighed, I was surprised because I thought Dixie’s human-like behaviors were rare, but I wasn’t exactly a dog expert. I had never been very close to Gracie—she hadn’t even slept inside with me at night, she’d slept in a crate in the basement. I was still trying to understand her expression in the dream. The only thing I knew for sure was that it was negative.

III. Session Log Process

When the psychic lit an earthy, cinnamon-flavored cube of incense, the trails of shifting smoke seemed almost hypnotic. “This type of incense welcomes in spirit,” she said. She leaned over and grabbed a large photo from the top of a stack of books below her chair. The books had titles like Animal Speak and Beyond Words. She placed the photo in the center of the circle. “This is Willy. He’s not in spirit”—sometimes she used the word “spirit” as if it were an altered state of consciousness or a destination, “and that is all I’m going to tell you about him for now.” 

            Willy’s gray and white face dominated the photo like he’d been pursuing the camera, his body hid out of frame.

            I wrote my name on the top left-hand side of a sheet of paper, the date below, and on the opposite side, S.T. for “start time” then E.T. for “end time,” like the psychic directed. “‘Spirit’ might visit you as a voice or in images—from your point-of-view, or theirs,” she said. “Just write everything that pops into your head. Don’t censor yourselves, and don’t overthink it.” Then the room was quiet but for the scratching of pens on paper and the occasional arm softly sweeping across paper.

            I stared down at the carpet. I’d always been easily distracted by the movements of others. I could see this Willy in my mind without looking at the photo. The distance between his face and the camera made him appear friendly, adventurous, and curious. I didn’t know anything else about him but I didn’t pressure myself to know. This was just a game, so as my unconscious spoke to me in fragments, I jotted down my thoughts. I didn’t question how bizarre my answers seemed because they didn’t need to be correct and I wasn’t emotionally invested in the day’s outcome. But I could feel Tanya’s eyes settling on me. I only heard her scratch something down a few times—she was overthinking it all.

            The psychic said to stop and record the E.T. She thanked Willy for allowing us to read him. “Now we’re all going to share what we got with the group. I’ll do validations after.”

            Tanya said, “We have to share ours?”

            “Yes. It’s the only way that I know how to teach you,” the psychic said. “No one will judge you.”

            The medium said Willy was born on April 4th. Then she said things like, Willy says X, Willy wants Y, and Willy thinks Z

            I held a straight face by staring out the window. I pretended I could see something out where there was nothing, as if I could hear the water of the Merrimack River rushing softly over rocks.

            The woman who lost her goats said, “Willy was found in a parking lot. I saw his little face sticking out from under a car while two people watched.” She looked like she wanted to pinch Willy’s cheeks like some people do to babies.

            During my turn, I said, “I just want to preface this by saying that this is the first time I’ve ever done this, and I don’t know where the stuff I’m about to read came from. I don’t expect it to be accurate so here goes…” Then I read what I had written down:

            bold cat, approaches and asks for what he wants often, kneads legs often, jumps on counters, has a special place on the corner of the sofa where he always sits. prefers women, something about a Christmas tree, likes other cats, is playful but also independent, greets you in kitchen when you get home, good about litter box, enjoys other cats more than he does toys, has a strong personality: self-assured, came from Humane Society? found by the water somewhere, not feral when found adult

            People laughed about the Christmas tree. I said I thought Willy wasn’t feral because I had pictured him with a silky coat like the one Gracie once had back when she was young and we groomed her properly. She looked like a little fox. She had a wild side too—if my siblings and I released her from her line and ran around the yard, her eyes flashed with an incredible focus as she chased us, nipping at our heels, sometimes drawing blood. Now I know this was instinctual, but back then I thought it was her way of showing love. If I had been Tanya, I would have known the difference.

            “Wow, you got a lot. Now I really don’t want to read mine,” Tanya said. 

            I shrugged. “I just wrote down anything that popped into my head.” I wasn’t always good at assuring people. 

            “Don’t compare,” the psychic said. “Anyway, you’ve probably got more than you think. I’m betting you’re really intuitive. Trust yourself.”

            If anyone could speak with animals, it was Tanya—the first time Dixie met Tanya, Dixie had sniffed Tanya’s pant leg then sat down next to her. The first time Dixie had met me, she sprang up and placed her front paws on my shoulders then stared me down. My boyfriend had had Dixie before we met and she viewed me as a threat. After many disclaimers Tanya said, “I think Willy likes to walk on counters… But then again it looks like he is walking on a countertop in that photo. And I said he looks like the type of cat who yowls rather than meows, and he might be a bold cat because he has placed his face right in front of the camera lens, like he is inspecting the person taking the photo? But maybe that is just this photo? Maybe he is not really a bold cat at all, and I’m just totally off base?”

            “You actually got a lot more than I thought you did by the way you were talking!” the psychic said. “I know plenty of people, who aren’t cat people, who would have just said: Meehhh.” She shrugged with her arms wide. “It’s a cat. A gray cat.”

            The psychic continued to reassure Tanya until she pretended to believe what the psychic was saying just to detract the group’s attention from her. She sighed when they moved on.

            At some point, I heard a high-pitched bark outside the glass door that separated the studio from the lobby. The chorus of women’s voices was a conglomeration of Aww!(s) and Where is the puppy!—I can’t see them!(s). The dog was hidden behind the wall. The dog barked each time one of the women spoke, and the women spoke each time the dog barked so the psychic had to leave and ask the dog’s person to take them for a walk.

            The young woman who loved “Horse-y(s)” said Willy liked to sleep on a maroon pillow with tassels that sat on a silky black and white chair, but no one seemed to be listening. I could feel the women flutter with anticipation wondering when the new dog would enter, their energy filling the air with waves of anxiety.

            The psychic said Willy was bold, born in April, and found in a parking lot by a river, that he wasn’t feral when he was found, and that he did sleep on a black and white chair, greeted her and her husband in the kitchen when they got home, walked on countertops, and yowled rather than meowed. 

            The room was bursting with cries of delight from those who were validated, including myself, with the exception of Tanya who was just staring down at her paper as if she had received a bad score on her test. 

            “And the Christmas tree thing. The first year my husband and I brought Willy home he attacked our Christmas tree and nearly broke every ornament,” the psychic said. “We haven’t put one up since.”

            The women regarded me as if I had done something extraordinary. I acted like I had won a round of this game. I was smiling because I had gotten as many answers correct as the woman who had claimed to be a medium—I secretly hoped to surpass her in the future readings. Not because I believed in the psychic, but because I was annoyed by the medium’s certainty. I knew the psychic was proving the validity of her course by validating us. Who knew if her validations were really characteristics of Willy? Tanya kept pointing out how much better my answers had been than hers, so I whispered to her, “Half of mine were things you could say about any cat. You can connect anything with anything else if you really want to.” She looked up at me with skepticism.

IV. Shamanic and Psychic Process

When the psychic said, “We’re going to contact our spirit animals now, so you’ll all want to get comfortable, whatever that means for you,” I thought she was crazy. But I quietly followed the other women who were grabbing pillows from a stack in the corner of the room then sitting down by the wall. “’Spirit animals,’ or ‘animal allies’ aren’t specific animals, they’re types of animals, like foxes. Your animal, your ancestor, or just any spirit that happens to be nearby is going to help you in the work you’re here to do today, if you ask them respectfully.” 

            She lifted a wide, handheld drum from below the side table, tilted it on her knee then began beating on it. Deep, evenly-spaced beats echoed off of the walls. “Okay, now close your eyes, and humbly request the aid of your spirit animal, or your ancestors, or just any spirits present to assist you in this next activity.” 

            I closed my eyes and pretended to ask someone for help. I focused on the aroma of the black and cinnamon tea some of the women had retrieved from the lobby during our break to prevent myself from laughing.

            Then the first of three doggie visitors entered—a jittery black terrier named Princess. Her wavy coat glistened in the light. On the opposite end of her leash, followed an older impeccably dressed woman with a bob haircut. 

            The room erupted with Ohhh!(s) and She’s so cute!(s), as Princess ran around, bouncing forward and barking sharply, and the older woman apologized, then pressed the button on Princess’ retractable leash. It whirred and Princess made choking noises as she was yanked back in the older woman’s direction. 

            The older woman sat down next to the psychic but this cycle continued. The women laughed like this was sport and Princess lunged forward like they were a threat, the older woman repeatedly reminding Princess to sit.

             “Just write down everything that pops into your head, like last time. But this time try to ask Princess questions in your head, or project images from your mind to hers, or feelings from your body to hers. Animals understand the world through images and emotion.” She told us to look at the sample questions inside our packets if we needed guidance, questions like, How do you feel about your past? 

            The psychic said the older woman could allow Princess to explore, and the older woman released a few additional feet of slack. Princess sniffed several of the women’s sneakers then stopped at mine. Her nose wiggled as she evaluated the scents of each animal I had come into contact with on the farm up the street from my house. After the activity began, Princess’ unhealthy fixation with my shoes meant everyone was staring at me. I closed my eyes. 

            I wrote: Needy, fa [favorite activity]: walk, feels loved, feels prioritized, loves people live with, and wants people to know let her out screen/glass back door to play with cats. I saw Princess in a small, crowded kennel surrounded by other kennels filled with dogs with dirty disheveled fur. I didn’t write this down. I didn’t want to offend the woman. When Princess abandoned my sneakers, I was relieved. 

            The medium read first. “Princess told me the back right side of her body is hurting. If she doesn’t already, she is going to have some health issues related to her back right leg, or her kidney on that side. It’s just something to watch out for.” 

            The older woman turned towards the psychic, who said not to respond until everyone was finished. 

            The woman whose goats had died said, “Princess wants to let you know that her foot was sore after you took her to the groomer last time.” 

            Princess kept venturing farther away from the older woman. She bounced from one lap to another, licked someone with her little sandpaper tongue, the leash clicking and whizzing as she sprang back like a hair elastic. Occasionally, Princess would lean back on her hind legs in response to something someone read and then spring forward and yip her approval or disapproval. 

            When it was my turn, I prefaced my reading with self-doubt and self-deprecation. I doubted I could perform like I did in the last round. But as I read, I surprised myself by referring to Princess as me in one of my passages.

            “I see her watching chipmunks,” Tanya said, “or birds from a window, barking at them. I could be wrong. Maybe Princess doesn’t even bark at windows? Maybe she doesn’t even like chipmunks? But I wrote down that she wants you to let her out so she can get the chipmunks. Although, maybe you shouldn’t let her out because of the poor chipmunks.” 

            I stared at the crow above Princess. I wondered if it was even a crow at all. I had read online that the only way for a non-bird expert to distinguish a crow from a raven is to kill it because their differences are almost indiscernible from any significant distance—ravens are only slightly larger than crows; ravens’ beaks are somewhat hook-shaped compared to crows;’ and the bottom of ravens’ tails are a bit triangular while crows’ tails are square. 

            The older woman said Princess fit almost everything each person wrote down. She was needy, and did bark at the cats outside the back door. I had guessed as many answers as the medium again. Tanya asked how I had done it. I began fidgeting. She seemed to believe I was psychic. “I’m probably just accessing my unconscious easily because we were forced to do writing prompts all the time in my fiction classes in undergrad.” Tanya tilted her head like she didn’t believe me.

            Even if the Gracie in my dream was Gracie: I didn’t want the message she seemed to be carrying.

            Our final two visitors entered: two longhaired Chihuahuas that froze in front of a gap in our circle. They smelled the ground, growling in a low pitch. 

            The room erupted in Awww!(s), and the dogs lunged, barking, maintaining a minimum of a two-foot distance from anyone like there was an invisible force field. 

            “It’s okay,” said the woman with bright red hair, who was holding their leashes. Her voice was velvet—soft and textured but had little effect. The tan one scurried under her legs then hid underneath her chair as she sat down at the front while the black and white one stood in front of her, barking. “This scaredy-cat right here,” she motioned towards the tan one, who growled faintly, “is Dobby, and the other one is Creature.” 

            Both Dobby and Creature had scraggly fur and gangly legs. Their wet eyes—black moons protruding from the landscape of their face—glistened like raindrops in the light. Dobby’s lower eyelids were stained, giving the impression that he was perpetually crying.

            During the reading, Dobby cowered under the red-haired woman’s seat, while Creature was a caged lion. He would leap forward, barking and tugging on his leash before springing back again each time the red-haired woman retracted it. Some of the women stared at him as if they were in love, while I was wondering if he was capable of biting?

            The medium read first. She thought Dobby and Creature had been rescued together from some sort of bad situation. 

            I read what I wrote:  

            they’re new to each other, one came 1st, pretty well-behaved, sometimes get each other into trouble, nervous of big dogs, bark at cats, 1 cat in house, love treats, both adopted somehow?

            I was tired by then because it had been four hours and there was still two more to go. 

            I didn’t pay attention to what most of the women said because the intense emotion they emitted reminded me of the chaos of my childhood and I was ready to escape.

            Then the red-haired woman said Dobby and Creature did often get themselves into trouble. They had been adopted separately, but she suspected they both come from hoarding situations because they had severe behavioral issues.

            The red-haired woman had confirmed everything I had written down. Even though I’d written down less than I had the two readings before, I had maintained my position on the top of the group with the medium. The women in the room seemed to be certain I was psychic. 

            The sky outside the window was dimming. I was ready to leave.

            Twenty years ago, in the car that day, it was uncharacteristically quiet, except for the dirt driveway crackling below. The sun was bright outside the window. Everyone had been completely still ever since we left the hospital—our mom had screamed like a caged animal when we shut the car doors in the hospital parking lot—her older brother was being removed from life support. Even my sister Courtney was silent, in her baby seat with her legs dangling down in little plastic leg braces, the top of her hand in her mouth with a bit of drool escaping down her palm. She was almost too big for the baby seat. Her eyes shifted back and forth, searching for the bit of light she was able to detect, even though she was legally blind.

            We parked. My mom stormed inside—the sound of each footstep amplified by our silence. The door to our log cabin slammed behind her. 

            The summer air was soaked in pine. The parking lot behind our log cabin, invisible from the road, was adjacent to a thick forest. My thirteen-year-old brain was processing what I had just seen—I had watched my eight-year-old cousin climb on top of her father and beg him not to go, the machines beside him lit up, but quiet. 

            My mom came outside with a laundry basket. 

            She yanked towels and jeans off of the line. My dad lifted Courtney’s big black wheelchair from the trunk, then began to unbuckle her. His mouth had settled in a straight line, his eyes soft with an uneasy awkwardness I recognized—how he looked when he wanted to make everything okay but couldn’t. I worried he would throw up, like he had the day Courtney stopped breathing at her two-week check-up. 

            I stepped toward the lawn where my mom was. My stomach hurt. Our old Buick and my dad’s work truck blocked my view of the lawn and Gracie’s line. I stepped around it to check on my mom.    

            Gracie was still. Her body hung several feet from the ground. Her chain was wrapped around her line several times, bits of her collar hidden underneath her matted fur, the remainder of the chain a tangled mass dangling down into the dirt. I held my mouth shut. My eyes blurred then began to burn. Her body was stiff. I tugged on the chain, attempting to unfasten it from her collar. I worried my mom would see. The chain clanked like dull bells. Clouds of dirt drifted in the air. The grass below her line had been worn away, leaving a path resembling a racetrack. 

            On the lawn, I could see my mom’s feet shifting beneath a line of stiff towels. 

            I hurried over to my dad. He was buckling Courtney into her wheelchair. “Gracie is hanging.”

            “What—what do you mean hanging?”

            “She’s dead. She is stiff.”

            My mom screamed. She had removed the last towel that blocked her view. She ran over to Gracie and tugged on her chain. The line, attached to a tree on one end and a pole on the other, bowed like waves. The chain clinked with each rise and fall.

            My dad grabbed my mom and a tug-of-war ensued until he pushed her away.

            But he couldn’t yank Gracie’s body down and he began to swear. 

            I thought I might be sick. Now Ricky, Lindsay, and Ashley were standing with me next to Gracie’s doghouse. The name “Jasper,” the dog we had when I was a baby was still over the door. We’d had Gracie since I was about three.

            I don’t know exactly what happened next. My dad disappeared then returned with a bolt cutter and the chain snapped as he cut it. 

            The body must have fallen to the ground with a thump, but I don’t remember this. Maybe my dad yelled at Ricky, Lindsay, Ashley, and me to go inside before he cut the chain, and I heard the sound on my way through the door.  

            None of us talked about it again until we were adults. 

V. Shamanic Drumming

“Find an isolated spot, and sit,” the psychic said. “You’re about to meet with your spirit animal.” She picked up the Shamanic Drum. “And that spirit animal is going to help you communicate with the animal you’re seeking to communicate with today. You won’t be writing anything down for this one.” 

            I sat down next to the wall.

            “You’re not going to choose your animal today. You’re going to allow that animal to choose you.” She began slowly and rhythmically beating on the drum. “Close your eyes. Don’t worry about what’s next. I’m going to guide you.” The drum’s volume increased gradually approaching a climax.

            With my eyes closed, her voice and the vibrations of the drum hit like the waves of a small earthquake. I felt I was deep underground. Everything was black. I saw a porcupine. I saw a turkey. I knew I was imagining these to combat the unknown.

            “I’m going to count up to nine. I like to use odd, random numbers. When I reach nine you will suddenly find yourself somewhere in nature that is familiar to you. Don’t think. Just allow your unconscious to select it for you. Maybe it’s a field from your childhood, or a backyard.” She counted. The pace of the drum quickened. Its volume increased. She stopped at nine. The drumming ceased.

            I was in a field behind my house, surrounded by a thick line of pines. The old granite wall on the perimeter was mostly concealed within the trees. An occasional sliver of an opening, where the sun peeked through revealed its presence. The sun was warm. There was a light breeze. It carried the smell pine and fresh grass. The tall grass tickled my pant legs, painting them with dew. I stood still.

            The psychic began drumming softly. “Now you’re going to start walking until you find a tree. It doesn’t matter what kind of tree, just any tree.”

            My body shifted. I couldn’t see or feel my feet moving, but then I was below a tall pine. I couldn’t see the top. It was identifiable by its coarse bark.

            “Look closer. Do you see that?” The drumming intensified. “There is a hole in the tree. It’s just big enough for you to fit in. Don’t be afraid, step inside.” 

            I took a deep breath. I stepped inside. I felt like I was in one of the Alice In Wonderland dreams used to have as a child. Inside it was dimly lit. It was somewhat cramped. 

            The psychic described a spiral staircase. I could make out its outline. It had a railing down the side.

            The drumming heightened until I thought the drumhead might burst. “You’re either going to be drawn up the stairs, or down. It doesn’t matter.” Her tempo became erratic.  

            The stairs had folded in on themselves. I was being sucked downward. It was black. It felt endless. The volume of the drum was uncomfortable. My heart rate aligned with its vibrations and I felt dizzy. 

            “When I stop drumming, you’re going to find yourself back in the place where you began. Except this time the spirit animal, who has chosen you, will be there waiting.” The drumming was ear-splitting, then it silenced.

            A deer stood in front of me. Its eyes were locked on mine. Its wide black eyes were beautiful. I could sense the pine behind me. It retreated on its own when the psychic began drumming.

            “Now the spirit animal will begin running in a circle around you.” She drummed faster with irregular beats, steadily louder and louder until I felt like I was inside the drum, while the deer circled me erratically. Its eyes were focused on me. They never blinked so it looked cartoonish. Then it was blur of brown. I felt nauseous. “When I stop again, your spirit animal will have retrieved the animal you’re looking to speak with today. And it will just be the two of you. They will be there with you, and your time with them will be healing—it will be everything you have imagined it to be and more.”

            The drumming silenced. 

            I was below an oak. Gracie was in front of me. She stood still. She had the sweet fox-shaped face I remembered but the aura of an old woman. 

            It was quiet except for a slight breeze rustling the leaves of the oak. It felt like spring. Gracie smelled like she had just been bathed.  

            She stepped forward. She said, “Hello,” like a person but without moving her mouth. Her coat was silky between my fingers. She almost looked like she was smiling. I knew I loved her and she still loved me.

            “Tell them what it is you want to tell them,” I heard the psychic say like God was speaking through the clouds.

            “I’m so sorry that we neglected you,” I said. “I’m so sorry that didn’t change before you died. I’m responsible for that.” I was on my knees. 

            Gracie’s eyes softened. She tilted her head to the side the way Dixie did when she was confused. “It’s all right,” Gracie said. “You were suffering, too.” 

            I couldn’t breathe. I knew she was a figment of my imagination—her words had risen from somewhere deep inside of me. But I didn’t care where they had come from.

Rebecca Curtis has published work in The New Englander, The Henniker Review, and Environmental Forensics. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from New England College.

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